WHITNEY MOUNTAIN / wmountain@sacbee.com

George Caselli waves to friends and family who gathered Sunday to see the former bombardier honored by France at the California War Memorial in Sacramento. He flew 34 missions with the 15th Air Force's 450th bomb group, based in Bari, Italy.

WWII airman, 95, honored with French medal

Published: Monday, Jul. 18, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Jul. 18, 2011 - 8:16 am

George Caselli is not a household name.

These days, the former World War II bombardier is known better for having raised three boys with his wife of 62 years, Annetta.

But on Sunday, Caselli captured a bit of the limelight when the French Consulate honored him with its highest civilian award, the Chevalier medal of the French Legion of Honor, for his Army Air Forces missions during the war.

"It is true how the French feel about the U.S. involvement in that war. They are forever grateful," said Jane Wheaton, honorary consul of France for the San Francisco-based consulate general.

Caselli, 95, in a wheelchair, was low-key about the honor.

"It's very nice," the Sacramentan said when asked about it.

The award, established by Napoleon in 1802, is not a rare one. Wheaton says that around 10,000 people have received the honor for service to the French state.

Even so, the roster of honor includes some well-known recipients.

Among some of the highly regarded chevaliers of France have been American chef Julia Child, animator Walt Disney, prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison and jazz musician Miles Davis, event organizers said.

"He was never one who wanted to be in the spotlight," said the veteran's son John Caselli. "It's kind of ironic that he is being publicly awarded, because he never really talks much about it. This is really special."

In wartime, Caselli was nicknamed "The Count" in the 450th Bomb Group, which was dubbed "The Cottontails." He enlisted in 1941, became a bombardier and flew 34 missions with the 15th Air Force based in Bari, Italy.

Three missions were flown over France, which is why French President Nicolas Sarkozy personally signed Caselli's award.

After the war, Caselli worked for both Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. He kept mum about his military service. But his wife, Annetta, said the honor and recognition bestowed Sunday are important.

"I started working on this last July, so I am happy to see it finally come to pass," she said. "He deserves it."

The French award isn't Caselli's only recognition. Other World War II honors include the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart.

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